(Latin, meaning: ‘remember you must die’)
(Hans Holbein, ‘The Ambassadors’, 1931)
Works of art reminding the viewer of their mortality and the brevity and fragility of human life with regards to God and nature. Elements included may be skulls (death), clocks (passing of time), fruit or flowers. Objects included in still lives would be incorporated- books, musical instruments- to remind us of the vanity of worldy pleasures.
(Salvador Dali, ‘The Persistence of Memory’, 1931)
A subject matter continually explored throughout time.
(Damien Hirst, ‘Hymn’, 2000)
Beautiful and unique celebrations of modern science. Damien Hirst’s ‘Spot Paintings’.
With each dot having a totally individual colour they require strict organisation, coming together as a whole chromatic form and persuading the eye to find patterns.
The works of the 1990s are an analysis of pharmacology, and how man made and natural substances effect changes in living organisms- especially mass-produced drugs (c.f. “Pharmacy”, 1992). Representations include Methoxyverapamil, Cocaine Hydrochloride and Morphine Sulphate, and associate back to standard Hirst- his focus on the prolonging of life, mortality and thoughts of existence.
In the words of their creator, ‘the end result is always optimistic, no matter how I feel’. And that’s honest through their bright colorings.
Damien Hirst is never going to be a name forgotten following the power he has maintained over the Contemporary British art scene. Tate Modern’s major exhibition of his most renowned works completes this and grants the justice his power deserves.
He’s denied an “obsession” with the historical art motif of mortality and death, and rejected them as familiar trends throughout his works, but the exhibition does much to further confirm this. In fact, it is unavoidable; death is KEY to his work. Even the earliest “With Dead Head”, 1991- his teenage self, posing with an anatomical sample, suggest this. His Natural History Series- animals suspended in formaldehyde allure strongly to these suggestions- explained frankly through the shark’s title: “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”, 1991. Less obvious examples of this trend include the Medicine Cabinets, “Pharmacy”, 1992 and “Lullaby, the Seasons”, 2002 which act as suggestions to the modern day materialist man’s obsession with the prolonging of death, cynically escaping our own mortality and out doing our own creation. Or further still, the Spot Paintings, with their mass-scale and individual colours, represent the pharmaceutical make-up of many familiar medicinal chemicals. Finally, his obsession with cigarettes (“Crematorium”, 1996) represents the human subjection to a slow death.
Something that cannot be understood through second-hand experiences of Hirst’s work is his success in enrapturing senses to comprehend works. Unexpectedly toying with them and advantageously using them- especially with the smell of the rotting cows head in “A Thousand Years”, 1990, the dead flies in “Black Sun”, 2004 or the overwhelming stench of the thousands of cigarette butts in “Crematorium”. These are feelings gained only via gallery experience.
Skulls, animals, medicines and cigarettes all allude to pessimistic concepts of mortality. But maybe Hirst would be more welcoming to a deeper understanding- are they an analysis of the passing of time and the natural transience of life (c.f. “A Thousand Years”), instead of death (a narrow-minded assumption)? Conversely, his more current works see not an obsession with death, but “feeling like King Midas” (Hirst) through an emphasised use of elaborate materials- especially in “For the Love of God”.
Despite the fantastic collection on display, it’s busy. Overwhelmingly. A half an hour queue to enter the live butterfly display- “In and Out of Love”, 1991- and one even longer to catch a glimpse of the mesmerising, encapsulating “For the Love of God”, 2007. For the latter-it’s worth it, but I’m not convinced for witnessing the butterfly life cycle. Is this really what you want from a gallery experience? Has it been too commercialised?
In his television documentary The Mona Lisa Curse, the pugnacious and persuasive art critic Robert Hughes argued that traditional values which judge art by its quality have been overridden by marketing and hype, and that, in the present consumer culture, the only meaning left for art is a financial one. Perhaps today, the millions who visit museums do so in order to contemplate art’s financial rather than aesthetic values.
The artists Hughes singled out as being worth so much more than they merited were Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst. So will people go to Hirst’s retrospective at Tate Modern to mull over the millions of pounds his art represents? The critics are likely to see the selection, which emphasises his early work, as supporting the view that Hirst had made his best, most original work by the latter half of the 1990s, and everything after that was repetition. But then, even if it has been a bit of a production line, it has been a very successful one, and so in itself a comment on consumer culture.
Warhol also addressed consumer culture, was repetitive, and employed factory workers to make his art, just as Hirst has done. But the difference is that Hirst has enjoyed far more commercial success than Warhol ever did.
Hirst is often cited as the richest artist in the UK, even in the world. In 2009, the Sunday Times Rich List assessed his wealth at £235 million. That may have been an understatement. In 2008, his business manager, Frank Dunphy, said Hirst was “a dollar billionaire”. Dunphy, an accountant who had worked with the artist since the mid-Nineties, was clearly proud of his achievement, turning Hirst from a potential drunken layabout into a number-one bankable asset, and a lot of interesting facts came out.
Hirst employed 160 staff making artworks for him at five studios in England. He owned dozens of properties from Mayfair to Mexico, including the £3 million Toddington Manor, where he planned to put his art collection – then worth about $400 million (£252 million) – including a self-portrait by Francis Bacon which he had bought in 2007 for £16 million.There wasn’t a run-down of gallery sales but, occasionally, some figures would be revealed: Charles Saatchi buying the Humbrol toy sculpture, Hymn, for £1 million, a White Cube sell-out for £11 million, a multi-million sell-out in his first show in Mexico – added to which was the $20 million (£12 million) sale of the contents of the Pharmacy restaurant, and the £111 million pound Beautiful sale at Sotheby’s, which took place just before the West’s financial crash.
Adding to the earnings figures has been Other Criteria, Hirst’s retail outlet, which was netting $12 million (£7.5 million) a year on brand products like prints and T-shirts. Recently Hirst has announced his plans to build 500 eco homes in Devon – a money-spinner if it takes off – and the opening of a gallery in London to house his own collection.
The popular obsession with wealth and fame has ensured that Hirst’s name is ineradicably associated with something other than his art. The £50 million diamond-encrusted skull he made in 2007 tells us how wealth cannot buy immortality. The Sotheby’s sale in 2008 was a statement of the artist’s superiority over his dealers and, being more of the same but with added bling for the new rich collectors, a work of art in itself.
Both of these are featured in the Tate show – the skull in the Turbine Hall, and an installation from the Sotheby’s sale upstairs to support the “whole work of art” idea. But if they are about money, neither is quite complete.
The skull has never been sold properly, so doesn’t have a real value – only the price attached to it. And the effects of the Sotheby’s sale are still being played out, as works that were bought there (perhaps with the extended credit terms that were offered) resurface on the market, selling for half or two-thirds of the price they sold for initially.
This fits well with Hirst’s intentions to reverse the normal pattern of accruing value – to buy the new work from the artist or his dealer for, say, £1,000, wait for the value to go up, and then resell for £10,000 – excluding the artist from any profit.
Hirst objected to that process, saying he believed artists should make their work more expensive at the first point of sale. “The first time you sell something is when it should cost the most,” he said. It means treating a work of art like a new car or a piece of furniture, but it is the way an artist, who does not profit from auction resales, can make the most money.
If this is what happened at the Sotheby’s sale, with Hirst pocketing the lion’s share, it has been the buyers who have suffered a loss at the point of resale, not Hirst. Nor has Hirst been perturbed by the downturn in his auction prices. “What goes up must come down,” he says. “It’s like when John Lennon went to get his long hair cut and was asked why. ‘What else can you do after you’ve grown it long?’ he answered.”
The Sotheby’s sale itself did little damage to his gallery relationships. He is now one of many successful artists (Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, and Anish Kapoor) who have become less dependent on their galleries and more reliant on business managers and have transformed themselves into self-contained corporations.
He has also demonstrated how little attention the market pays to the art critics. The exhibition of his own figurative paintings at the Wallace Collection and White Cube was slaughtered by the critics, yet collectors paid millions for them.
Hirst once admitted his ambitions, saying: “It’s been hard to see the art for the dollar signs.” A similar difficulty has faced the viewer, if not the investor. Whether he has been making art for money or about money, there is always the suspicion that he is fulfilling that early wish when he said: “I can’t wait to get into a position of making really bad art and get away with it.”
‘Damien Hirst’ opens at Tate Modern on April 4
Whilst London becomes the centre of the universe for the summer as a result of the Olympics, the London galleries have to do something to keep our visitors entertained.
The Royal Academy started the show with their much acclaimed David Hockney exhibition and the rest of the galleries will continue the show.
Tate Britain has Picasso and ‘Migrations: Journeys into British Art’, Tate Modern has a long awaited Damien Hirst retrospective where the leader of the YBAs is represented in all his glory with an outlining of his entire artistic career, Jay Joplin’s White Cube represents fellow London rebels Gilbert and George and the Victoria and Albert Museum has a look back at half a century of British design.
There is plenty to see, so don’t waste all your energy watching meaningless sports on the television, but take advantage of this sound representation of British artisitic culture.
Migrations- 31st January-12th August 2012
Picasso and Modern British Art- 15th February-15th July 2012
Damien Hirst- 4th April-9th September 2012
Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye- 28th June-14th October 2012
The Queens Gallery:
Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomy- 4th May-7th October 2012
Victoria and Albert Museum:
British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age- 31st March-12th August
White Cube, Hoxton:
Gilbert and George- 9th March-12th May 2012
(gallery and exhibition reviews to come)